My friends, Claudia, Janice and I took the ferry to Ellis Island this past Saturday. It had rained in the early morning but, for the rest of the day we had brief periods of sun and BIG sky. The clouds were just wonderful; ominous and huge like hovering spaceships. The sun, fighting for dominion would slice through a purple-grey mass illuminating the water and causing nearby clouds to turn bright white as they ballooned above our heads. The boat was packed with a happy excited tourist crowd as we pulled away from the shores of Battery Park heading out along the wide deep Hudson River to spend the day walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.
When we arrived on the island we stopped at the entrance to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum; here I separated from my friends to spend a few moments walking around the perimeter of the island and getting some photographs as the sun won a temporary battle with the clouds and shone with a warm determination.
Admiring and photographing the beautiful views of the Manhattan and Jersey City skylines, I came upon the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. A large silver oval wall behind the museum, inscribed with the names of hundreds of immigrants that passed through Ellis Island; only a fraction of the twelve million people who graced its halls and entered into a new life in America.
My last name is Franklyn, my father was Maximillian Peter Franklyn and it says so on my birth certificate, but we found out through a family genealogist, my nephew-in-law, Damian DeVirgilio, that my father’s real name was in fact Feinstein and his family was from Warsaw Poland. He had seven siblings; six brothers and one sister. Even with Damian’s detective skills we could not discover if he was born here or if he, with his family, immigrated to American and if so, when? Or why, he chose to changed his name and never once mentioned his large family or his past to either his wife or his four children. And as he deserted us when I was nine, leaving for work one day never to return or be heard from again, until his death, his past will always remain an enigma. But, curiosity got the better of me and I walked along the wall until I came to the F’s and found a few Feinsteins and a Max Feinstein Family; if these are relatives of mine I’ll never know but, in a quirk of sentimentality and for family posterity I took a photo of these names. Walking further on I reached the R’s and ran my finger down the list until I found the Ryan’s. These were my mother’s people, she being Mary Camilla Ryan, she went by her middle name Camilla and her friends called her Cam. My brother was named after our great-grand father Patrick H. Ryan who in the 1870′s founded the Ryan hotel in Blanchardville, WI. My maternal great-great grand parents immigrated to American from Ireland long before Ellis Island opened, they most likely passed through Castle Clinton. Again, I enjoyed looking at the names and taking a photo of the Patrick Ryan’s to show my brother and sisters.
I walked back through the front entrance, so I could experience what it was like to walk through those huge doors into the Baggage Room, where so many wide-eyed people from far away lands walked with all of their worldly belongings clutched in their hands. This is where they dropped off all of their suit cases, trunks, boxes, valises, baskets, and bags for safe keeping before being herded into the Great Hall, a.k.a., the Registry Room. I found this formidable hall just fascinating with vaulted ceilings, where two flowing American Flags hung, and large arched windows where light poured through igniting my imagination. This was the room where the immigrants were “processed” and where the urban legend of name changing or rearranging happened to either make it easier for the authorities to pronounce or to suit their new American lifestyles. I walked through a doorway that took me upstairs where there were rooms full of incredible photos of people. Hundreds of faces peered out at me their large glassy eyes following me; these were eyes of wonder, bewilderment, fear, excitement, courage and pride. I stood staring back trying to feel what they were feeling; wondering what they were thinking. These were they eyes of people who gave up everything they had, said goodbye to everyone they knew to sail away to a world as foreign as the moon; It was a last chance, a roll of the dice. They were young, they were old, they were poor but, they all shared a dogged determination to make it.
There were rooms that held the old relics of the dormitories, hospital and kitchen that served the islands immigrants before they took the ferry to New York or New Jersey, or sadly, were sent back where they came from. These items were still covered with the dust of memories. An old decrepit piano stood behind a wicker chair, who played it? A rusted muffin tin hid next to an enormous cooking pot with giant ladles hanging by its side. A medical table with privacy curtains like dried mummy skin next to a peeling supply cabinet. The dormitory room held rows of cots that hung by chains from the ceiling; a scant woolen blanket folded at the head of each bed. Porcelain communal sinks and old subway tile glistened in the sun. I was lost in another time.
I eventually met up with my friends again as I walked through the Peopling of America section behind the Baggage Room. Here we learned of the real history of the immigrants as they tried to assimilate to the new culture and how they met with derision and prejudice, failure and success. In other words the good, the bad and the ugly of coming to America. Sadly, I learned that Africans passed through Ellis Island not as immigrants but as property to be sold at auction and to begin their lives here in this new world as dehumanized slaves. We learned of the plight of the indigenous people of this country and how they watched as their land was sold in cheap parcels to anyone who had the cash in hand and the grit to travel across the West. We listened to the many stories of the animosity and fear towards the Chinese. But, through it all these people, these tenacious, ingenious, wonderful people persevered and grew strong, worked hard and made a better life for themselves, their children and their children’s children and consequently for all of us living here now.
The purpose of history is to learn from the past. There is a saying; history repeats itself. I don’t believe that. I believe that we make the same mistakes over and over again. We want to forget and sweep the past under the rug. That is why a place like Ellis Island is so important because it does not let us forget but instead teaches us to correct our errors of the past and to look forward to the future and not be afraid of but, to embrace diversity.